Also known as: Trane Coltrane, John William Coltrane
Musician, bandleader, composer
John Coltrane was a consummate musician and band leader; an innovator in the avant garde and free jazz era from its inception. As a saxophone player he continually sought new levels of technical expression, reaching for new sounds, tonalities, and extensions of range and dynamics. As a melodic stylist, he greatly stretched the boundaries of thematic and harmonic development, merging improvisation, tone color, dynamics, and rhythm. He expanded the range of his instrument, adding sonorous depth on the lower end and tense emotional peaks on the higher end of the tonal spectrum. In many ways, John Coltrane sought a spiritual level of communication with his audience. His music challenged the jazz public to listen deeply and seek new levels of understanding and appreciation.
John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina, the son of John Robert and Alice Blair Coltrane. The Coltranes' home life included music: his father, a tailor, played violin and ukulele for enjoyment; his mother was a church pianist and sang in the choir. Both of his grandfathers were ministers, perhaps foreshadowing the importance of religion later in his life. His cousin, Mary Alexander, was one of his strongest supporters throughout his life, and he later dedicated a composition to her, "Cousin Mary". The Coltranes and the Blairs, his mother's parents, had close family ties. The family moved to High Point, North Carolina, when he was a few months old. A few years after her husband died in 1939, Alice moved to Philadelphia to seek work. His mother took a job in Atlantic City, and Mary Alexander came north later, moving in with Coltrane and John Kinzer in Philadelphia. Coltrane and two close friends, John Kinzer and Franklin Brower, also moved to Philadelphia after high school graduation in 1942.
Although Philadelphia remained a base for him, Coltrane's career drew him to New York in the 1950s. His mother, aunt, and cousin, however, kept the north Philadelphia home as a place of refuge for him. It was there that he met and married his first wife, Juanita Naima Grubb, in 1955. They moved to New York, where his career was then centered. Coltrane and Naima shared many crises, including his transformation and healing from drug dependency in 1957. Her faith as a Muslim added a new dimension to his religious search and further growth.
John and Naima Coltrane drifted apart, however, and he left her in 1963. He met Alice McLeod, a gifted jazz pianist, during an engagement at Birdland, in New York City, in July of that year, where she was playing with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. John and Alice soon married, moved to Huntington, Long Island, and she replaced McCoy Tyner when he left the John Coltrane Quartet in 1966. Alice and John Coltrane had three sons: John Jr., born in 1965, and twins Ravi and Oranyan, born in 1967.
Serious illness struck John Coltrane in 1967, and he died in New York on July 17, 1967, of liver disease. His widow, Alice Coltrane, moved to California, continued to perform both his and her own music, and subsequently a cultural and religious society dedicated to his memory was later founded in San Francisco. To preserve Coltrane's memory, Mary Alexander, together with a group of Philadelphia women, founded the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society at the family home at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, in 1984.
Coltrane's musical studies began in 1938, in the Community Band at High Point, North Carolina, directed by Warren Steele, pastor at St. Stephen's Metropolitan AME Church. Members of Steele's Boy Scout Troop, of which he was scoutmaster, formed the band's nucleus. Steele personally raised money for instruments, recruited the young musicians, taught them to read music, as well as how to play, and directed the band. Coltrane, fast becoming an outstanding band member, played alto horn and later clarinet. Coltrane also joined the band at William Penn High School, directed by Grace Yokley, where he played first played the clarinet and switched to the alto saxophone, and performed in the school's dance band.
Coltrane's musical activities continued in Philadelphia in 1943, having moved there from High Point with his two friends, Franklin Brower and James Kinzer. He found a job and studied clarinet, alto saxophone, and theory at the Ornstein School of Music with Mike Guerra. His career as a professional musician also began at this time, appearing with the Jimmy Johnson Big Band. In 1945 he was inducted into the U.S. Navy and played the clarinet with the band in Hawaii during 1945--46. Following Coltrane's release from service, he returned to his north Philadelphia home, resumed his musical studies, performed regularly, and produced his first recording.
During Coltrane's period of apprenticeship, he worked mostly with bands in the Philadelphia area led by Joe Webb, King Kolax, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Jimmy Heath. Vinson offered him the opportunity to play tenor saxophone, which then became his primary instrument. Later in Coltrane's career he added soprano saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet. In developing his technique and searching for tonalities as yet unheard, he freely sought ideas, listened, and accepted advice from many reed players and other musicians over the years. These included his lifetime friend Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hedges, Lester Young, Earl Bostic, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Archie Shepp, and Coleman Hawkins. Thelonious Monk, another lifelong friend and collaborator, showed Coltrane unorthodox ways of blowing overtones, while Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar encouraged him to think of other sound and aesthetic dimensions. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and the Nigerian percussionist Michael Olatunji, influenced his concepts of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Sounds he imagined and heard in meditation further influenced him.
Coltrane's sojourn as a band musician continued as he worked with more prominent groups, joining Dizzy Gillespie's large and small bands in 1949-51, as well as Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and Miles Davis for two periods. In 1951, he returned to Philadelphia and resumed his formal training at the Granoff Studios, recommended by Percy Heath and Dizzy Gillespie. He studied saxophone with Matthew Rastelli and theory with Dennis Sandole. Rastelli worked with him on technique, while Sandole introduced him to a thorough understanding of harmony, modes, scales, combinations, and to the literature of orchestration, especially Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and Hindemith. Sandole found Coltrane to be an avid and inquisitive student.
Coltrane's musical career, meanwhile, developed rapidly, placing him in the forefront of the burgeoning bop and new jazz era. His contemporaries, with whom he shared many performances and recordings, included the jazz giants Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, Roy Haynes, Art Davis, Art Taylor, Reggie Workman, Steve Davis, Billy Higgins, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rashied Ali. After a period of working in groups led by others, Coltrane formed his own quartet in 1960 consisting of McCoy Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums; Jimmy Garrison, bass; and himself, principally on tenor saxophone. The John Coltrane Quartet recorded many albums, which have since been rereleased on compact disk. Many jazz critics consider this group to be among the greatest ensembles of all time.
Coltrane was a very prolific recording artist. In his biography, Bill Cole provides a list of recording dates and personnel for sessions of the various groups with which Coltrane played from 1949 to 1967. John Fraim's biography gives a complementary listing or discography of the titles of more than 110 recordings produced during this same period featuring or including Coltrane. Together, these two sources give a basic guide to his prolific recordings.
Perhaps the most significant of Coltrane's collaborators over the years, in terms of his career development, were Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonius Monk, and Miles Davis. Coltrane performed with Dizzy Gillespie on a number of occasions in 1950-51 as a member of Gillespie's Big Band and Sextet with recordings issued by Capitol and DeeGee Records: The Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and Dizzy Gillespie Sextet. This association affected Coltrane's early development as an artist as it enabled him to experience close at hand the vibrant talent of this major figure who helped break the mold and create a new artistic form. The humor, witticism, and melodic improvisation Gillespie exhibited, as well as his innovative use of bebop speech intonations and Latin American and African derived percussion and dance rhythms, are well known and strongly influenced the developmental process not only of young John Coltrane, but of jazz history in general.
Coltrane collaborated closely with Thelonious Monk. Coltrane discussed musical matters with him frequently. One of his last discussions about his desired goals in music was at Monk's apartment in Manhattan in April of 1967, just shortly before Coltrane's death. Early in Coltrane's career, Monk introduced him to innovative and unexpected harmonies, the proper use of "space" (or rests, in music), the superimposition, or "stacking" of chords, and use of modal scales and harmonies.
Coltrane benefited greatly from his association with friend and colleague Miles Davis. In the early 1950s Davis played with concern for straight, clean melodies and a pure sound, but with ample harmonic flexibility. Their concepts blended well for the most part, as is demonstrated by the Milestones duet album (Columbia Records, No. 1386 D263 M61).
In 1957 Coltrane experienced a dramatic life transformation and overcame his strong drug dependency that began in 1948. In gratitude, he composed and dedicated the album A Love Supreme to God in thanks for his rebirth. His expressed desire to share his gift, his belief, his joy, and his music with others became a life purpose for Coltrane. He gave a poetic dedication of his life and his music to God in the liner notes. In setting the words of the composition, Coltrane shows his indebtedness to his friend, Nigerian master drummer Michael Olatunji, and his grasp of West African musical values and techniques. Typically, in playing lyrical works such as this at concerts and club dates, Coltrane and his assisting artists took their time, playing long solo expositions, probing the possibilities of the work. These long evocations were usually not heard on longplaying records, given the time limitations. With the advent of the CD, however, lengthy solo renditions captured on tape could now be included on a disc. Such is the case, for instance, with a version of "A Love Supreme" recorded at the Juan Les Pins Jazz Festival, Antibes, July 26-27, 1965 and released in 1992 on the CD John Coltrane; Immortal Concerts (Giants of Jazz, Sarabandas srl, SAAR srl No. CD 53068). The solos by each quartet member are long and fully explored, extending to a total of more than 47 minutes.
John Coltrane's diversity as an expressionist in music is preserved by his recorded legacy. The legacy presents a diverse and complex artist; a singer of soulful ballads as well as a painter of new and almost bizarre, unfathomable sounds; a man who wove a fabric of whole cloth that transmitted to us a tapestry of raw emotions as well as a preacher of love and unity.
Source: Notable Black American Men.